According to the rules of the job, Bruce McClendon seemed to be succeeding in every way as Los Angeles County's top land use planner.
After more than a year in the position, he had good marks on his latest performance evaluation. His boss wrote, "Mr. McClendon has become an active and supportive member of the county family, and his efforts and contributions are appreciated."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 22, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 82 words Type of Material: Correction
Auditor's investigation: An article in Sunday's Section A about an auditor's investigation of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors' dealings with the land planning department cited a civil lawsuit brought by Malibu landowner Brian Boudreau. The article incorrectly said that an e-mail provided by Boudreau's attorney, Fred Gaines, came from an aide to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The e-mail, which said "Project is getting very political," was sent by a public works employee; Gaines did not say it came from Yaroslavsky's office.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 03, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 84 words Type of Material: Correction
Auditor's investigation: An article in Section A on April 19 about an auditor's investigation of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors' dealings with the land planning department cited a civil lawsuit brought by Malibu landowner Brian Boudreau. The article incorrectly said that an e-mail provided by Boudreau's attorney, Fred Gaines, came from an aide to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The e-mail, which said "Project is getting very political," was sent by a public works employee; Gaines did not say it came from Yaroslavsky's office.
Four months later, county supervisors meeting in a closed session voted to fire him. But no one told McClendon.
Instead, he said, for months after the vote last November he was pressured to quit and leave quietly. Ultimately, William T Fujioka, the county's chief executive, carried out the firing Jan. 16.
The supervisors have refused to say why they ousted him. McClendon, 62, blames it on what he describes as the unwritten rules governing land use -- one of the most intense, politically fraught areas of county government.
Now, county investigators are trying to determine whether the planning process is so fierce that supervisors -- and their staff -- regularly violate their own rules.
McClendon, a highly respected former president of the American Planning Assn. and the first outsider to lead the department in more than three decades, said he tried -- not always successfully -- to shield his staff from efforts by supervisors' aides to influence code enforcement, zoning and development decisions that were not supposed to be political.
He has declined to publicly detail his allegations, citing a letter from Fujioka that ordered him not to publicly release documents or information after his firing. Instead, he would only say that the problem was not isolated to a single supervisor's office and that he believed criminal law might have been violated when supervisors' aides tried to use back channels to influence hearing officers who were set to hear landowners' appeals.
"I've been in government for 30 years and I've never seen anything like it," said McClendon, who previously led planning departments in Florida. "They are supposed to establish policy; we are supposed to carry it out in a fair, professional way."
McClendon's allegations are under investigation by Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe, formally appointed by the supervisors earlier this year. Investigators from her staff recently met with McClendon and received detailed information from him, both sides said. Watanabe plans to release written findings in the coming weeks.
Watanabe acknowledged that investigating her superiors, the county supervisors, is awkward. "This is the first time I can remember a situation like this," she said.
She strongly asserted, however, that her office would be capable of an independent investigation, saying the supervisors take a "hands-off approach" to her work.
"My integrity and reputation are at stake," she said.
Central to Watanabe's probe is whether the board violated a 3-year-old "non-intrusion" rule approved by supervisors that prohibits elected board members and their staff from giving orders to or instructing "any county officer or employee."
Supervisors flatly deny any impropriety. They cite another provision in the county governance rules as the basis for communications McClendon has alleged were improper. That provision allows them to "coordinate district specific policy and program initiatives, working directly with an individual department."
In a region where many people feel choked by growth that lacks the infrastructure to support it, intense skirmishes between builders and residents commonly occur within the county's more than 2,600 square miles of unincorporated land.
"All but the smallest projects are the matter of great public debate," said Allan Kotin, a longtime real estate consultant in the county and an adjunct professor at USC. "Almost every developer hires a lobbyist that has access to one or more supervisors. There is at least temperature-taking before the actual application process even begins."
In the city of Los Angeles, planning director Gail Goldberg has been outspoken about her belief that elected officials hold more sway over planning decisions in this region than in almost any other area in the country. But Goldberg, who came to Los Angeles from San Diego three years ago, said that during her tenure, elected city officials have used official channels and open meetings to influence decisions.
"When these decisions reach the political arena, it's fair to say the decisions are not always the best planning decisions, but that's appropriate because the elected officials have more to consider," she said. "Giving the elected officials the best planning advice we can give is the best we ask."
Some who have dealt with the county on planning matters say they feel they have come under political pressure.